For utility systems company Intren, the hard-hatted Black woman featured at its website is not just the wishful-thinking new face of the traditionally white-male energy industry, but also a symbol of the company’s real commitment to “diversity, equality and inclusion that starts at the top.” And that would be with President and CEO Sherina Maye Edwards, who last year became the third female and first Black leader of the publicly traded business that provides infrastructure for power companies across the country.
With 2,200 employees and $600 million in revenues, her leadership position is no small responsibility, but not a big headline-maker. You only realize power is a thing when you don’t have it,” Edwards acknowledges. “When you have a blackout, you notice that electricity is important to you, when it’s winter and your furnace is not working you realize gas is important. But our goal is to ensure that utilities can provide you the power and the services that everyone needs to live so that they don’t have to think about it.”
Notable as Edwards’ appointment is—she has been named a “Top Female Exec in Energy”—and as commendable as Intren’s diversity goal is, there is still a long way to go. Only around 13% of the American energy workforce is female, and only 6% African American. Having said that, there are great opportunities, with the government’s new infrastructure push creating more job openings. “It’s such a great rewarding industry to be in,” Edwards says, “and certainly one that I think that can attract and be very rewarding for diverse individuals, particularly African Americans.”
The opportunities are not just on the visible front end of the industry, with the high-climbing linemen. “You don’t have to be an engineer to be in energy,” Edwards says, pointing to the need for behind-the-scenes skills like attorneys, accountants, economists, HR specialists and writers.” (For WayMaker Journal readers interested in exploring opportunities in the industry, she recommends checking out the American Association of Blacks in Energy website, www.aabe.org).
“There is literally a role for everyone to fit into the puzzle,” she says, foreseeing a big shift in the coming years to a greater emphasis on renewable energy. “So that means more solar, and there’s a lot of work to be done.” Wind technology will bring its opportunities, too. “Wind tends to be in the west,” she explains, “but it has to be moved from the west to the east. The transmission lines that we build allow us to have that kind of renewable energy; we can’t do that with a shortage of workers.”
The current labor shortage (“We’re probably at a 40% shortage of linemen”) is in part because of the mystique that surrounds it, she believes. “You don’t really know what it means; like what is energy? Truly, it is such a broad industry, but any role can fit into it.”
‘A Spelman woman’
Illustrating her point about energy being an industry that most people don’t know much about or think much about if it’s running smoothly, Edwards tells how she came unexpectedly to her current role. She had been practicing law for a few years when she got a call from the office of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, asking whether she would be interested in serving on the state’s Commerce Commission.
“At the time, I didn’t fully know what that was,” she admits, “but after doing some research, I realized that it was the state body that regulated all of the energy and utilities in the state… natural gas, electricity, water, sewer, telecommunications, and after going back and forth, and of course speaking to some mentors, I came in and said yes.”
She accepted the five-year term on the regulatory body, which were the “best professional years and most rewarding of my life. I learned so much, and I realized that I don’t think I want to leave energy: This is just such an exciting arena and an industry in which there are so many emerging issues. And it is the future. When you think about what is the epicenter of the global economy, it is truly energy. So I wanted to be right in the heart of it.”
Returning to the private sector, she worked as an energy regulatory attorney, handling strategy for utilities and energy organizations, some crisis management and strategic counseling. During that time she accepted a seat on Intren’s board, and when the president announced her departure, she encouraged Edwards to apply for the position. Despite an “impostor syndrome moment, where I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think I can do that’” she threw her hat into the ring and moved into the CEO’s chair in September 2020.
Edwards is a big cheerleader for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), having attended two—Spelman College, where she earned a degree in psychology, and Howard, from which she gained her juris doctorate. Her husband is a graduate of another HBCU, Hampton.
“They have an expression, ‘You can always tell a Spelman woman,’ which is so true,” she says. “With a Spelman woman, you let people know. You don’t just walk across the room; you let people know that room has been walked through. I learned in those four years what executive presence was, I learned what it meant to be confident, and not just to be confident and to ensure your success, but then once you reached success to make sure that other people could get success as well.”
She credits both places with “that sense of nurturing, that sense of a village that you cannot get at every school.” HBCUs remain “unequivocally important,” she believes. “These are institutions that work cultivating leaders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, African American leaders, since before it was cool to be supporting Black people. These are the institutions that opened their doors to educate us when we could not get into any others.”
Edwards recalls cringing when someone questioned whether attending an HBCU was important in these “post-George Floyd” days, with their greater openness to diversity. “All the more important,” she says, “because you need to have leaders who are nurtured, supported for these four years that can get out and be change agents in this world, to continue the conversation of diversity.”
‘Key to success’
Edwards knew she wanted an HBCU education from an early age. “It started with my upbringing,” she says. “I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Long Island, New York, and I really wanted to be with like-minded people… I wanted to be in a place where people didn’t think it was odd for me to have my head down in a book and for me to want to do great things.”
When she told Mom in eighth grade she wanted to go to Spelman, her mother said they could do a visit in a few years. “I said, ‘No, I really want to visit now.’ So we went to visit and I was clearly there on the right weekend; I think it might’ve been the Friday before homecoming and I just could not believe it... all these amazing African American bold, beautiful women who were here educating themselves.
“And that was it. If it was up to me, I would have applied to one school. But I was not allowed to, so I applied to multiple schools, but my heart was at Spelman. And when I got that blue envelope on April 1, 2001, I was elated.”
While some people question the value of going to college, Edwards is an emphatic proponent of higher education. “What I say to the students that I mentor is that education is your key. It does not matter what your ZIP code is, it does not matter what your upbringing is like, but education is your key to elevation. It’s your key to success. It’s your key to betterment, it is your key to a whole new world.”
She doesn’t like to hear people say college isn’t for them. “No, education is for everybody.” How you go about it could be different, she acknowledges—maybe a trade school or a two-year school over a four-year one. “But education is for everybody. You have to think of the short-term game and the long-term game; are you trying to set yourself up for success in the long term? Everything that builds upon education leads you to nowhere, but to success.
“I am the biggest proponent of higher education and access to it because a lot of people don’t have that.”
Married with a three-year-old daughter, McKenzie (“who is very sassy and has way more energy than me on most days”), Edwards calls this “other job” as a wife and mom “certainly my most important.” But how does she answer the question of whether working women can have it all?
“I got this from a mentor of mine,” she says. “You can absolutely have it all, but not at the same time. I think that we have moved away from feeling like we have to be these superwomen, these power women, having all this pressure and immense weight on our shoulders. It’s now OK to say that, ‘You know what? I cannot do it all every single day.’”
For her, that means being “really present in what I’m doing when I’m running a $600 million company; I am all in. The stakes are really high. There’s a lot of pressure there. I’m trying not to be distracted by things outside of that.”
And then when she is with family, “I try and be fully present and not thinking about what’s going on at the office. Obviously there’s a lot of crossover and that can be difficult, but for most days I try to do that.”
‘Let it go’
One big help in managing it all has been what she calls her sister tribe. “It is so important to have a village of people,” she says, citing how those friends came to the rescue earlier this year when she missed the deadline for a preschool application for her daughter. “I don’t know what happened,” she admits. “I’m very organized... talk about a loser mom moment.”
A friend encouraged her to see if the school could extend some grace, which she did and they did, and then other friends helped her complete the application. The result: her daughter got accepted after all. “I have to say I rely on my sisters a lot and they can rely on me too,” Edwards goes on. “One of my best friends lives across the street; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to her, ‘Hey, can I just bring the kids over for a second?’ or I’ll have her kids. We support each other. We’re all very busy. We’re successful, but we have each other and we do rely on each other.”
Edwards has McKenzie in mind when she is asked to name four guests for a special dinner. “I want her to see, I want her to be exposed, I want her to understand and to appreciate significant opportunities and to be learning through experiences,” she says.
The youngster would get that opportunity from the presence of Michelle Obama, “because she is just dynamic... one of those that is a pourer, she continues to pour, she continues to give.” McKenzie would see “this very aspirational, dynamic woman who she now knows she can be like.”
The other seats at the table would go to Edwards’ mom (“because she has truly been the reason for my success; the support she’s given me, the sacrifice that she’s made throughout her life”) and someone she describes as her “corporate celebrity crush.” That is Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, a Spelman alum who is “dynamic in every single way... she’s my dream mentor.”
And what advice would Edwards have for her 21-year-old self? “It would be let it go and just enjoy life,” she says. “I feel like I’ve always been that person with many ambitions. I was always focusing on what’s next. Just enjoy the ride. Life is short and moments are shorter. And when you’re constantly thinking about what’s next, you’re missing that moment.”
Everyone needs waymakers to help them along, Edwards agrees. They see things in you that you may not see in yourself, she believes. “They can see what you’re capable of. They can see your excellence before you really can confirm it. And then they push that and they talk to other people and they sponsor you.”
Having benefited from that kind of help and encouragement, it is important to pay it forward, she says. “There are people in this world who are very successful and they sit in their success and they’re not interested in making sure that others are successful,” she observes. “They’re not interested in turning around and reaching to pull someone else up.
“And that means everything will end with you, and we can’t have that. My mom said this all the time: It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, what title you have, how much you make. If you don’t turn around and make sure that at least two people are sitting where you are or better, you are not successful.
“I’m already thinking about, well, who else can be here? Who else can be in my role? I hate hearing Sherina is the first Black woman, one of the only females… it’s old. I don’t want to be the first and the only; I want others. And that’s why that cultivation of new leaders and cultivation of others, particularly other diverse people, is significant. It’s our duty as leaders.”